Remembering Jack Leigh

Other reporters race to the phone to call the grieving relatives of murder victims to get their “reaction.” Others carry police scanners so they can speed to the scene of a gruesome accident to get freshly graphic photos.

In 20 years of journalism it’s never occurred to me to do such a thing. I guess that’s the Savannah in me.

Like many people in town, I had known local photographer Jack Leigh was very sick for a long time, and that the illness would almost surely claim his life.

It was hardly a secret, but I could never bring myself to even tangentially refer to it in print, nor to bring it up with Jack himself. In true Savannah tradition, I figured if I ignored it, it would just go away. It didn’t.

The last time I spoke to Jack was the Friday before he passed away. On his cellphone, he sounded as courtly and optimistic as ever.

I said, “Jack, a little bird told me you might want to sit down for awhile and have a talk sometime soon.”

“Absolutely,” he answered. “Call me sometime Monday and we’ll set it up.”

It was a coded conversation between two Savannahians, a code that meant: Jack, I know you’re dying and I want to do something to pay tribute. But I won’t intrude on your privacy unless invited.

And it was Jack replying, also in the local code: Yeah, it’s time. Let’s do this.

Silly, when you think about it. But there you go. It is what it is.

So I called that Monday to follow up. This time Jack’s ex-wife Susan, by his side through much of the illness, answered.

“I don’t think he’ll be able to talk to you now,” she said calmly. “To tell you the truth, he’s had a bad weekend and I’m not sure he’ll be able to talk to you at all.”

Susan was right. Jack’s cancer claimed him last Tuesday night, the same evening we dedicated our “Best of Savannah” Party at McDonough’s to Jack himself, whose gallery was once again voted by our readers as the Best Photography Gallery.

I never did get a chance to have that last conversation with Jack. Truth be told, his photography and long record of community involvement were not even the main things I wanted to talk to him about.

I most wanted to talk with him about the remarkable family he leaves behind.

Susan Patrice I’ve mentioned. Though the two were no longer married, the talented artist and community activist helped take care of Jack after it became apparent he was terminally ill.

Their relationship reminded me of what happened with my own divorced parents. Though the two had split nearly twenty years earlier, neither to remarry, my mother was by my father’s side when he fell ill with terminal cancer.

Jack and Susan had that same kind of relationship, a bond of family that, for awhile at least, transcended the reality of legal divorce.

I also wanted to talk with Jack about raising his two children, stepdaughter Jessica and daughter Gracie, and to compliment him on the fine job he did raising them both.

Jessica and my eldest daughter have been friends for years, so I’ve had the pleasure of watching her grow up from a young age. Beautiful and sunny of personality, she has her mother’s outgoing nature and quick intelligence.

Jack’s influence on her is also clear; Jessica is artistically talented like her stepfather, and like him possessed of an intrinsic dignity and respect for others.

I don’t know Gracie as well. But I will never forget her first day at Charles Ellis some years back, where my daughter also attended school. I remember her walking down the sidewalk on 49th Street, precocious and bespectacled, facing that daunting first day of school with a fragile but determined courage that was an inspiration to other children around her.

The rest of the world will likely remember Jack most for his immortal “Bird Girl” image that became the cover of the best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Jack’s photo -- or one incredibly similar to it -- also adorned posters for the movie version. But Warner Bros. refused to credit him or compensate him. The studio’s stable of lawyers won the ensuing legal battle, but we all know better, don’t we Jack?

In my younger days, I used to think it was indeed one’s life work that would remain after we were gone. It’s a romantic and commonplace notion, but I’ve since learned that it’s not so.

Your truest legacy is your family and loved ones and the impact you had on them. That, not your art or your work, is what is most important in this life.

Jack was doubly blessed. In family as well as with art, his legacy lives on.

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